There is an old saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a catchy phrase that might be true.
Researchers have shown that power – even artificial power – causes people to change their behavior. Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld describes,
When people feel powerful, they stop trying to ‘control themselves.’ What we think of as ‘power plays’ aren’t calculated and Machiavellian – they happen at the subconscious level. [When we get power,] many of those internal regulators that hold most of us back from bold or bad behavior diminish or disappear.
In the unpublished manuscript “Power and the consumption of resources”, Ward and Keltner provide a vivid experiment of how increased power can lead to reduced inhibitions. They placed college students in same-sex groups of three people and asked them to collaborate on writing a short policy paper on contentious social issues. The researchers randomly chose one person to grade the other two students based on their contribution to the policy. This person now had power compared to the other students.
After 30 minutes, the researchers introduced a plate with five cookies. The “powerful” students were much more likely to eat a second cookie than the others. They were also more likely to chew with their mouths open and to scatter crumbs over the table. With perceived power, they lost their social inhibitions.
Is power poison? The evidence suggests that it might be. In the 2003 Psychological Review article “Power, Approach and Inhibition“, Keltner, Gruenfeld, and Anderson summarized the extensive studies of power. High-power individuals talk more, interrupt more, are more aggressive, and more likely to think of others as a means to their own ends.
While the evidence might be overwhelming, I think that this is a perfect example of the old maxim that correlation does not imply causation. Power doesn’t poison people; it lowers inhibitions. People in power that act poorly probably always had the tendency to do so but suppressed it when they felt they had to succumb to social norms. Once in power, they do what they want rather than what they are expected to do.
Don’t assume everyone in power is poisonous. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if someone with increased power suddenly changes their behavior.